How Arthur Rackham’s 1907 Drawings for Alice in Wonderland Revolutionized the Carroll Classic, the Technology of Book Art, and the Economics of Illustration
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
By Maria Popova
In the 150 years since Lewis Carroll first told the story of Wonderland to the real-life Alice, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has attracted a number of stunning visual interpretations ranging from Salvador Dalí to Yayoi Kusama, but none more influential than those Arthur Rackham (September 19, 1867–September 6, 1939) created in 1907.
Rackham had an uncommon gift for art from a young age. As a child, he would often stay up late, drawing by candlelight under the covers, and Alice in Wonderland was among the books that most stirred his imagination. But, the son of a civil servant and a survivor in a family that had lost five of its children, young Arthur took the sensible path of becoming a junior insurance clerk at the age of seventeen, making £40 a year — about £4,500 in today’s money. At eighteen, he began studying art part-time at the Lambeth School of Art.
Rackham recounts his trying beginnings in a letter quoted in Derek Hudson’s biography of the artist:
For the next seven years or so I worked as hard as I could out of business hours (9–5) to equip myself as an artist — not being able to embark on a professional career till I was nearly twenty-five, and then for many years getting the barest living from my profession and having to do much distasteful hack work.
But part of what made him so extraordinary was that throughout his life, even as he came to be celebrated as the greatest illustrator of the Edwardian era, he maintained the appearance of a straight-laced, humble insurance clerk. And yet his gaunt, solemn face concealed a wild imagination; from behind his wire-rimmed glassed looked out eyes of wonder. Carroll’s Alice so enchanted Rackham perhaps precisely because it bridges reality and reverie, plunging the reader into the extraordinary hidden behind the ordinary.
It took a remarkable woman to unleash Rackham’s creative potency — the prominent Irish portrait artist and sculptor Edyth Starkie, whom he met over a garden wall in 1898 and married five years later. Despite her training as a portraitist, Edyth’s imagination was anything but literal — playful and full of mischievous whimsy, she was the perfect counterpoint to Arthur’s seriousness. Both his greatest champion and his most conscientious critic, she encouraged him to pursue his fantasy watercolors and convinced him to exhibit them at the Royal Watercolor Society, where Rackham feared his dreamy drawings would be ridiculed alongside more traditional work. Instead, they were lauded as imaginative and innovative, and led to commissions that finally allowed him to leave behind the “distasteful hack work” he so detested and to channel his talent into classics like the works of Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm.
In 1907, at the peak of the first two decades of the twentieth century known as the Golden Age of Illustration, the text of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland entered the public domain in the United Kingdom, immediately catalyzing several illustrated editions. Among them was Rackham’s, containing thirteen color plates and fifteen black-and-white line drawings.
A number of elements made Rackham’s visual interpretation a turning point in the history of both the Carroll classic and the art of illustration. First and foremost was his distinctive aesthetic at the intersection of the sentimental and the grotesque — sensitive and dark at the same time, like a Neil Gaiman story or a Patti Smith song. But public reception was polarizing — while many instantly recognized that a singular creative genius was before them, others felt that Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations for Alice had become so central to the beloved story that any other interpretation was a sacrilege. Still, Rackham’s drawings came to captivate the popular imagination and paved the way for a century of artistic takes on Carroll’s tale.
Another point of significance in Rackham’s edition was the often neglected but powerful way in which the evolution of technology and the evolution of art fuel one another. Previously, illustrators handed their work over to engravers, who translated the drawings into rough lines cut onto wood or metal plates, which were then inked and pressed onto the page in the printing process. But Rackham, aware that his delicate and expressive lines would be lost in translation, began photographing his drawings and having them mechanically reproduced. This removed the engravers as middlemen, but also increased production cost since illustrated pages now had to be printed on glazed paper and inserted into the regularly printed book.
This shift introduced a third major element of innovation at the intersection of culture and commerce, changing the economics of illustration and pioneering a new way for artists to make a living. To subsidize the higher cost of preserving the integrity of his artwork in print, Rackham partnered with the publisher William Heinnemann and they came up with a profitable model — each book was issued in a small limited-edition run of signed, beautifully bound, expensive copies, and a large run of affordable mass-market copies. Accompanying each book was also a gallery exhibition of the original artwork, which not only helped Rackham — and other artists who adopted this model — earn substantial additional income, but established illustration as a notable work of art in its own right rather than mere adornment of a literary masterpiece, as it had been previously perceived.
The combined effect of these shifts created a new market for beautiful gift books, elevated illustration from commercial commodity to fine art, and made Rackham one of the most widely known and successful illustrators of his time. By 1920, he was earning £7,000 a year — more than £280,000 in today’s money, or sixfold what he made as an insurance clerk.
On a recent trip to London, I wandered into an antiquarian bookshop and had the great fortune of discovering an original 1907 edition of Rackham’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (public library), complete with a prefatory poem by the great English poet and essayist Austin Dobson — a lovely homage both to the timelessness of the Carroll classic and to Rackham’s innovative genius, paid in verse:
‘Tis two score years since Carroll’s art,
With topsy-turvy magic,
Sent Alice wondering through a part
Half-comic and half-tragic.
Enchanting Alice! Black-and-white
Has made your deeds perennial;
And naught save “Chaos and old Night”
Can part you now from Tenniel;
But still you are a Type, and based
In Truth, like Lear and Hamlet;
And Types may be re-draped to taste
In cloth-of-gold or camlet.
Here comes a fresh Costumier, then;
That Taste may gain a wrinkle
From him who drew with such deft pen
The rags of Rip Van Winkle!
Rackham’s interpretation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was an enormous creative catalyst for him. The following year, he created what is celebrated as his greatest work — his illustrations for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream — and his only daughter, Barbara, was born. His aesthetic went on to influence generations of beloved artists as wide-ranging as Maurice Sendak, Neil Gaiman, and Patti Smith.
For more notable collaborations between great visual artists and great storytellers across time and space, see Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm, Norman Rockwell’s art for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Aubrey Beardsley’s groundbreaking illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.
Published February 1, 2016